Japans bomb in the Basement

On Thursday, a shipment of 700 kilograms of plutonium arrived in Japan after a journey by sea from the French port of Cherbourg. That’s enough material for more than 100 nuclear weapons.

The plutonium – in the form of atomic fuel known as MOX, a mix of uranium and plutonium oxide – is for use in the Takahama-4 reactor, owned by Kansai Electric Power Co. and located on Wakasa Bay, in western Japan near Osaka.

There have been six shipments of such highly toxic cargoes since 1999, the result of an agreement to send radioactive spent fuel in Japan for reprocessing in France and the UK, and then to be shipped back as plutonium MOX fuel for use in Japan’s reactors.

Putting aside the reactor fuel issue for the moment, Japan’s plutonium program must be seen in the context of the nuclear arms proliferation dynamic that has existed for decades in Northeast Asia, but which today has taken on even greater urgency owing to North Korea’s nuclear weapon program.

Map of Japan's nuclear plants. Photo: Japan Atomic Industries Forum, 2016.

Map of Japan’s nuclear plants. Photo: Japan Atomic Industries Forum, 2016.

There is no question that Japan has the technical capability to build an advanced nuclear weapons arsenal.

There have been over the decades multiple references to it taking less than six months for Japan to build an atomic weapon – a credible timeframe if it’s true as reported more 20 years ago that a design or designs already exist in the country.

However, to build a ‘credible’ arsenal of weapons would require several years at least.

More important than any actual timeframe are the external factors that would lead a Japanese government to move to nuclear weaponization.

More important than any actual timeframe are the external factors that would lead a Japanese government to move to nuclear weaponization.

This debate is stirring in Japan. In a TV Asahi program on September 6, former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba suggested a review was needed of Japan’s so-called three non-nuclear principles: Not producing, possessing, or allowing nuclear weapons into Japan.

Ishiba asked the question if Japan is under the US nuclear umbrella then isn’t it necessary to allow US nuclear weapons into the country to deter threats from North Korea?

It’s clear that without a peaceful resolution to the underlying security threats in the region, there is an increasing possibility that policy makers in Tokyo – backed by Washington – will decide that Japan should weaponize its plutonium stockpile.

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We have not reached that point yet, but without a fundamental change in thinking and policy, Japan’s nuclear bomb in the basement may not remain there for very much longer.

We have not reached that point yet, but without a fundamental change in thinking and policy, Japan’s nuclear bomb in the basement may not remain there for very much longer.

But back to Japan’s plutonium stockpiles and the question of why the only country attacked by a nuclear weapon and one that espouses the three non-nuclear principles has large amounts of the bomb-making material.

To answer that question requires looking back to the 1950s and a policy that was spearheaded by the United States, but soon adopted by Japan’s Science and Technology Agency established by former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone.

The policy was to build new types of nuclear power plants, or so-called Fast Breeder Reactors (FBRs), worldwide that would be fueled with plutonium reprocessed from spent uranium fuel. As FBRs produce more fuel than they burn  – hence the name “breeder” – they would in turn generate plutonium to fuel yet more FBRs.

The procedure was known as “closing the nuclear fuel cycle.”

While the idea seems a solution for processing spent fuel and producing more fuel for FBRs, the problem is fast breeder reactor programs failed worldwide, including in Japan.

Japan’s principle FBR started up in 1994 and was called Monju – named after a Buddhist deity for wisdom. However, a fire broke out at Monju 18 months after it opened, which shut the plant down for 14 years.

Monju nuclear reactor. Photo: IAEA Energy/Flickr

Monju nuclear reactor. Photo: IAEA Energy/Flickr

It restarted in May 2010, but weeks later a 3.3 metric-ton fuel exchange device fell into the reactor, which shut it down again for good, though to add to the fiasco its computers were later hacked and data stolen.

This effectively ended Japan’s FBR ambitions, though it took two decades and a total investment of more than US$10 billion for the government to finally make the wise decision to terminate Monju in December 2016.

However, Tokyo had other motives for commitment to a plutonium fuel cycle.

By the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, plans to build commercial light water reactors across Japan, such as at Takahama and Fukushima, faced strong opposition from local communities and activists.

To appease the opposition, the government and utilities said the new reactors would not become nuclear waste sites because the spent fuel would be shipped for reprocessing in the UK and France. This solved, temporarily, a major nuclear waste problem at least for Japan.

In total over 7,000 tons of such fuel went off to Europe during the decades up to the mid 1990’s.

During that time, the plants reprocessing Japan’s spent fuel at la Hague in France and Sellafield in the UK became synonymous with accidents, nuclear waste discharges into the ocean and atmosphere, and public health concerns.

While the Japanese contracts were lucrative for the two state owned companies that operated the Sellafield and la Hague plants –Cogema/AREVA in France and British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL) in the UK – both were to become failed entities.

The Sellafield site is now managed by a UK government agency and absorbs most of the nation’s nuclear decommissioning budget estimated well in excess of US$100 billion.

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Sellafield nuclear reprocessing site. Image: Sellafield Ltd.

In the case of AREVA, the company has debts running into the billions of Euros and is due to enter final corporate restructuring later this year with near zero prospects for future reprocessing operations.

There is another large wrinkle in this tale.

As failures engulfed Japan’s Monju fast-breeder reactor and shut it down, the government had to figure out what to do with the thousands of kilograms of plutonium that would be returning to Japanese shores to fuel a fleet of FBR’s that didn’t exist.

As failures engulfed Japan’s Monju fast-breeder reactor and shut it down, the government had to figure out what to do with the thousands of kilograms of plutonium that would be returning to Japanese shores to fuel a fleet of FBR’s that didn’t exist.

The answer, which brings us back to the cargo that arrived in Japan this week, was plutonium MOX fuel that could be used in existing commercial light water reactors.

The first MOX shipments in 1999 were for use in Fukushima and Takahama reactors.

However, in the case of the MOX delivered to Takahama, activists revealed that the fuel had been manufactured with falsified quality certification, leading to its return shipment to the UK.

In the case of the Fukushima plant, citizens from the prefecture, supported by evidence from Greenpeace, took Tokyo Electric Power Co., or TEPCO the plant owner, to court over the quality control of the fuel.

While the citizens group lost the case, AREVA was instructed to release vital safety data, which they refused to do. The ensuing controversy led the then Fukushima Governor Eisaku Sato to refuse to permit loading of the plutonium fuel.

It sat in the cooling pool at the Fukushima Daiichi reactor until August 2010 when TEPCO finally loaded the 32 assemblies of 235 kilograms of plutonium into reactor unit 3.

This was just six months before the Fukushima plant was hit by the strongest earthquake ever recorded in Japan and flooded by a tsunami that caused triple reactor meltdowns on March 11, 2011, including reactor unit 3.

A worker wearing a protective suit and mask works on the roof of the No.4 reactor building of Tepco's crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima prefecture February 20, 2012. Reuters/Issei Kato

A worker in protective suit works on the roof of the No.4 reactor building of the  crippled atomic plant in Fukushima prefecture February 20, 2012. Reuters/Issei Kato

Without the actions of Japanese citizens and others around the world, TEPCO would almost certainly have spent the past decade through to 2011 loading many tons of plutonium MOX fuel into the Fukushima Daiichi reactors.

The meltdown of this fuel would have been far more severe and with greater onsite and offsite radiological consequences than the reality at the accident site today, which itself will take decades and tens of billions of dollars to clean up.

Worse still, tons of high temperature spent MOX fuel would have been sitting in Fukushima’s spent fuel pools.

If the Fukushima reactors had been loaded with plutonium MOX, then the warning from the Atomic Energy Commission to then Prime Minister Naoto Kan in late March 2011 that the loss of control at the spent fuel pools at the plant may require the evacuation of Tokyo, may well have become a reality.

Of the five reactors now operating in Japan, three are loaded with plutonium MOX fuel. However, the threat from Japan’s plutonium obsession could be about to get a lot worse.

Japan has built its own US$21 billion nuclear spent fuel reprocessing facility in Rokkasho-mura in Aomori prefecture, near Hokkaido. (Yes, the same Hokkaido North Korea has recently taken to firing missiles over.)

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The Rokkasho nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Japan’s Aomori prefecture. Wikimedia Commons.

The Rokkasho story sounds more than a little similar to Monju, just more expensive.

Rokkasho was supposed to be completed in 1997, but due to multiple construction and equipment failures, it was delayed and has since missed repeated start up dates. It’s now 20 years behind schedule and has a new opening set for 2018.

Assuming Rokkasho does eventually open, it was built to process spent fuel to produce plutonium primarily for use in fast-breeder reactors.

As pointed out, Japan’s only fast-breeder reactor, Monju, has been permanently shut so what happens to the 8,000 kilograms of plutonium Rokkasho was to produce each year?

The answer it appears lies in an atomic power plant being built at the northern tip of Aomori prefecture that will contain the Ohma Advanced Boiling Water reactor.

Now planned to start up in 2024, this reactor is intended to have a full MOX core, which would contain over 5 tons of plutonium and an annual demand of around 1.7 tons.

The safety implications of what would be a unique reactor worldwide operating with a full plutonium MOX core are enormous.

One reason why citizens and the city of Hakodate over the Tsugaru straits in Hokkaido have filed court challenges seeking to halt the Ohma plant’s construction. A court judgement is expected later this year.

Like Monju before, the prospects for operation of Ohma are dire and unlikely to solve Japan’s self inflicted plutonium hangover. But that also may be the point – the strategic and national security rationale for the program remains central for a government increasingly nationalistic in tone and outlook.

Under the guise of a civil nuclear program, Japan has become a de-facto nuclear weapons state without so far having to take that next fateful step.

Under the guise of a civil nuclear program, Japan has become a de-facto nuclear weapons state without so far having to take that next fateful step.

The MOX shipment this week is merely one further fig leaf for a plutonium and nuclear program that was always so much more than about energy.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un provides guidance on a nuclear weapons program in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang September 3, 2017. KCNA via REUTERS

Kim Jong-un with nuclear weapon engineers in this undated photo released by Korean Central News Agency in Pyongyang September 3, 2017. KCNA via REUTERS

How long can the Japanese government defend such a policy? We may be about to see in 2018 when the US Japan Peaceful Nuclear Cooperation Agreement, that provides sanction for Japan’s program, is up for renewal.

Given the incumbents in the Prime Minister office in Tokyo and the White House, don’t expect much deep reflection (or policy reversal) on what it means for a nation in a region on the edge of major conflict to possess the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons plutonium outside the declared nuclear weaponized states.

Instead, ending this decades long multi-billion dollar program will, as ever, be secured by the dedication of the people of Japan and their allies around the world concerned as they are with public safety and real security built on peace.

Shaun Burnie is a senior nuclear specialist with Greenpeace Germany, Tokyo. He is co-author of “Nuclear Proliferation in Plain Sight: Japan’s Plutonium Fuel Cycle–A Technical and Economic Failure But a Strategic Success” Japan Focus, March 2016, available at http://apjjf.org/2016/05/Burnie.html. He has worked on nuclear issues worldwide for more than three decades, including since 1991 on Japan’s plutonium and nuclear policy. sburnie@greenpeace.org

Nuclear physicist, Professor Frank Barnaby, is formerly of the UK Atomic Weapons Establishment and Director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI – from 1971-1981). Prof. Barnaby testified to the Fukushima District Court against TEPCO’s plans for MOX use in Fukushima Daiichi 3 in 2000, and is the author of multiple books on nuclear weapons design and policy.

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